Tag Archives: ambiguity

You look marvellous

26 Jun

What’s she marvelling at? I’m sure Comic-Con crowds are a sight to behold, and Bettany’s sunglasses look impressively retro in the photographs. But I don’t think that’s what the Daily Mail means here. I think there’s something more ambitious going on.

“Marvel”, the verb, is frequently followed by “at”,  and there is an “at” in this headline. But it’s not right up against the verb, where you would expect it. The preposition that immediately follows the verb  is “in”, introducing a phrase that relates to the dress. So Elizabeth Olsen, I think, is not supposed to be “marvelling … at” the venue or her colleague, or indeed anything else. She’s “marvelling” in a way that celebrities featured in the Mail have previously been known to “stun”, “wow”, “dazzle”, “electrify”, “shimmer” and “amaze”.  She’s looking marvellous.

This type of construction is familiar to tabloid readers: most of the time, they seem to be what you might call “implied object” headlines, since the star in question is usually stunning, wowing or electrifying somebody else  – fans, media, the crowd – not explicitly mentioned. Such headlines reek of journalese, but are easily understood if the verbs are transitive (“electrify”, “amaze”) and clearly propose the idea of a second party. They also work with what are sometimes called “unaccusative” verbs, like “shimmer”, that describe an involuntary state of the subject.

But “marvel” is the kind of intransitive verb that usually demands either an indirect object (“they marvelled at the moon”) or an entire clause as a direct object (“they marvelled to see the moon“). It can stand on its own (“They marvelled.”), but in a sentence containing unrelated prepositional phrases, the risk of misunderstanding is high.

Obviously, as a sub-editor, I find Marvel Comics puns as hard to pass over as anyone else. But I don’t think Grammar Hulk’s going to like this one.


Catalonia vs Wallonia

6 Mar

Ah, the lure of low attachment:

No doubt the Leave voters of Britain can empathise with Catalonia wanting to be free from Brussels’s yoke. But one suspects perhaps that “from Belgium” is meant to attach to something slightly higher up in the sentence here, such as “continue”.

Low attachment” is the tendency to read a phrase as modifying the thing closest to it, in preference to anything mentioned earlier (or “higher up”) in the sentence. As the linguist Arnold Zwicky says, “low attachment is the default, but other factors favor high attachment in certain contexts” – one very important context being “real-world plausibility”.

Even then, it’s tempting to track back only to the first word that allows the phrase to make grammatical sense, however absurd, as in the case in one of Zwicky’s most impressive examples: “a resident reported a large animal in a tree with tall and pointed ears”. Here, although the ears don’t quite attach as high up as the resident, they certainly become disconcertingly separated from “a large animal” by “a tree”.

And it frequently makes life more interesting. Low attachment can operate in a sentence as short as a headline, as Twitter user @knapjack discovered earlier this month:

And in one of Language Log’s regular features, “Linguistics in the Comics”, a schoolboy in the Frazz comic strip is doing a presentation for careers week to his teacher.

“I want to be the guitarist for Iggy and the Stooges like my dad,” he says.

“Your dad is Iggy Pop’s guitarist?”

“No, he wants to be.”